Activism Boot Camp: Are High Schoolers our Hope for the Future?

This is not (only) a photo of kids waiting for a bus.

This is not (only) a photo of kids waiting for a bus.

This is not a photo of kids waiting for a bus

Oh, I know what it looks like. It looks like a photo of a bunch of teenagers waiting on line for a bus.  But in fact, it’s a photo of hope. It’s a photo of the future. It’s a photo that reassures me that our democracy will not die, but will live on in the next generation.

Because this is a photo of kids heading down to Washington, D.C. to spend a week learning about activism at the ACLU Summer Advocacy Institute, a program designed to educated and inspire the next generation of social justice advocates. After a week in which the events in Charlottesville and this administration’s response to it left people on “many sides” of the political spectrum feeling nothing but despair, this snapshot serves as a counterbalance to the horrifying images of tiki-torch-wielding Nazis shouting anti-Semitic and racist slogans. After a weekend where 20 and 30 somethings marched for a whiter future, with a “way more racist” president who would not, as  White Supremacist Christopher Cartwell said in the ubiquitous Vice interview “Give his daughter to a Jew,” it’s heartening to see even younger people willing to stand up for their more liberal principles and spend a week learning how to turn those principles into action and to effect positive change.

In the wake of Charlottesville, many have attacked the ACLU for going too far in defending hate speech.  But the ACLU’s mandate is to protect the constitutional right to freedom of speech – not just the speech they like. We have in the Oval Office now a man who would love to restrict the voices he doesn’t like, and has de facto done so by banning news outlets from White House briefings and relentlessly deriding anyone who disagrees or criticizes him as “fake news.”  Now more than ever, protecting free speech – however odious – is paramount to the continuation of our democracy. It’s not always pretty.  But defending constitutional freedoms matters more when they are under attack from the executive branch itself. The ACLU is at the forefront of the fight.

Last year, the first time the ACLU ran the Institute with The Close Up Foundation — a DC-based civic-education nonprofit —150 kids participated. This year, they were hoping for 250. Nearly 1000 rising High School Juniors and Seniors applied, so they decided to expand the program to 500 16-18 year olds from around the country. Over the course of a week, students learned “directly from lawyers, lobbyists, community activists, and a wide array of experts working to defend the civil rights and liberties critical to a free and open society,”  all with the goal of helping the students “hone their skills as issue-focused campaigners.”

They took classes about cyber security and Civil Rights, the history of racism, feminism, and freedom of speech. They visited the Newseum, The Museum of African American History, the Martin Luther King Memorial and the Capitol Building.  They participated in sessions called “How to Build a Movement,” and started learning the skills to bring their activism home.

Speakers like ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero and keynote speaker Edward Snowden spoke to the group about civil rights, the history of racism and activism in America, and the dangerous threats to privacy and freedom of speech. My own teenaged daughter, who attended the program, rolled her eyes over how many times the speakers told the kids how thrilled they were that they were there, that simply the fact that they showed up made them extraordinary. “They kept on telling us how great we were just for being there!” she snorted. To her it seemed ridiculous– and calculated, too. “Their membership is aging.  They’re trying to get us all to join so they don’t die out,” was her conclusion. But her own youth is what made it impossible for her to see that those accolades were genuine expressions – not just of admiration – but of relief. “You are the future!” was what those speakers were saying. “We have not done enough.  There is much work to be done.  But you are here to continue the good fight, and we are so glad you want to fight it.”

One of the things my daughter learned that week is that activism begins with community. The ACLU Summer Advocacy Institute is building community among the very people who will be tomorrow’s activists. “How many liberals do you think live in Mississippi?” one boy who participated asked my daughter, and then answered his own question: “Me!” he said.  My own daughter lives in a liberal, democratic world, but for this kid, and hundreds of others like him, a week with like-minded people your own age, knowing you are not alone, joining a nationwide community dedicated to freedom of speech, racial and gender equality, and the constitution itself – was affirming and life altering. For kids like that, isolated in their views, surrounded by people who disagree with them all the time, showing up was an act of courage.

Next year, the ACLU plans to take 1000 kids into the program. So take a closer look at that picture.  And picture a world where 1000 young people from around the country come together for what is right and just.  Picture a world where they go home to Alabama, and Utah, and Mississippi, and Texas, Florida, Ohio – every state in the union, to enlist their friends to fight for the causes they believe in.  It might not obliterate the images from this past weekend, but it sure does help.

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